Meredith Turnbull is a visual artist, jeweler, writer, and curator. She holds a PhD in Fine Art from the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, Monash University. She lives and works in Narrm/Melbourne. Photo: Ross Coulter
The Joyaviva exhibition at RMIT Gallery features objects, jewelry, film projection and related printed materials all under the inclusive moniker of ‘Live Jewellery from across the Pacific.’ However it is much more than a discrete thematic exhibition of contemporary wearables by 23 artists from Australia, Chile and New Zealand. It is part of a larger Joyaviva project that spans the physical realm through exhibitions, as well as various online networks and intimate dialogues between makers and wearers alike. The project boasts a website and a growing archive of participants’ stories. This archive takes the form of commentary, articles, blogs and tweets about aspects of contemporary jewelry and design and is compiled from participant contributions that include jewelers, academics, critics, viewers and readers. After its first iteration at RMIT Gallery in Melbourne the exhibition will continue to tour to UTS Gallery in Sydney, Objectspace in Auckland and venues in Santiago and Valparaiso in Chile, Bolivia and Mexico City.
The Joyaviva project has been developed and established by Australian curator and writer Kevin Murray and is associated with the Ethical Design Laboratory, a research area of the RMIT Centre for Design at RMIT University. As mentioned, the project takes as its impetus an exploration of the notion of ‘live jewelry.’ According to Murray, in his catalog text for the Melbourne exhibition, live jewelry consists of objects that have a ‘life as a device for sharing hopes and fears’ and it is through these objects that connections and relationships between people and cultures can be unraveled and explored. In bringing certain objects together to explore the notion of ‘liveness,’ the exhibition effects a revival of interest in the possible social, personal and political dimensions of jewelry as a way of re-engaging the power of jewelry outside an overtly commercial, or as Murray suggests in his catalog, ‘technocratic’ context. The rationale for the project is also inspired by, as Murray notes both in the catalog and on the project website, ‘a new wave of jewelers whose focus is the world outside the gallery.’ The artists commissioned to contribute to this exhibition were encouraged to create a charm or device that reflected place, personal histories and beliefs. Individual artworks have an intended use, loosely related to luck or protection and a set of instructions on how to activate them. The artists’ intentions for their device are explained in greater detail on the project website.
It is evident from the catalog essay and further articles on the website, that Joyaviva coincides with and follows the rise of ethical and sustainable evolutions within contemporary jewelry and the sphere of art more broadly. It is also perhaps this aspect that explains the project’s association with the Ethical Design Laboratory at RMIT. Within the immediate context of contemporary jewelry this ethical dimension would include the growth of industry initiatives and organizations such as the Fairtrade and Fairmined hallmark for gold in the United Kingdom, the United States’ and Canadian greenKarat and Oro Verde in Colombia. In many ways Joyaviva seems to advocate a particular type of slow jewelry movement. Slow jewelry in this sense relates to current sustainable and ethical trends that are evident more broadly in the field of craft; in particular efforts to reclaim the processes of production and to revive concerns of self-sufficiency and sustainability. These ideas are explored in recent times by American author and sociologist Richard Sennet in his 2008 book The Craftsman and by American writer and research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, Matthew Crawford in his 2009 texts The Case for Working with Your Hands or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good and Shop Class as Soulcraft.
Through its investigation of ‘liveness,’ the Joyaviva project re-assesses values of preciousness in wearable artworks and poses answers to serious questions about the sourcing and use of materials. It also attempts to address the idea of jewelry as a form of social design. While an understanding of sustainable and DIY (Do It Yourself) movements may be vital to the conception of contemporary ethical jewelry, these ideas are a more recent dimension within the longer history of social design. This history details among other things, objects, clothing, urban, graphic and architectural design typified by works within movements such as Russian constructivism, Bauhaus and De Stijl as well as other moments within the avant-garde and modernism.
The works brought together for the Joyaviva exhibition at RMIT gallery share this emphasis on ideas of liveness and social design and for the most part, a scale appropriate to be worn on or adorn the body. This is however where the consensus between objects in the exhibition ends, as there is no cohesive aesthetic across the number of featured artworks. There is however consistency within the exhibition’s display as most objects are attached to sections of cream felt and hung on the wall at equidistant points around the room. The walls have been painted a dark green and covered with a black fabric mesh grid. Individual pieces are interposed with notes, photographs, wall labels and fake flowers. The exhibition design also includes a wall projection of documentary video footage from the associated projects and a table and chairs in the center of the room that provide a research space to sit with folders of compiled information about the artists and their creations.
The featured works are highly individual and their purpose and appearance is clearly drawn from several different cultural and aesthetic traditions. Although the notion of use value or the function of jewelry as a transformative device ties the exhibition together, there is no unifying form between artworks. In most cases the materials of the individual artwork literally indicate its use or applied function and natural materials feature alongside more industrial or manufactured ones. Given the number of artists and their respectively diverse practices, it is understandable that there is no shared aesthetic between the participants. Although discrete pieces appeal for different reasons, there is no overt attempt to engage with specific prevailing or historical notions of beauty. Perhaps it is even the intention of the exhibition to disrupt some of the more traditional narratives of contemporary jewelry. Here the focus is on individual histories, the personal value and appeal of particular objects and their potential activation.
However there are particularly aesthetic, as well as conceptually engaging, artworks within the exhibition. Such as Matthew McIntyre Wilson’s (Wellington, Taranaki iwi) Price of Change comprising exquisite brooches constructed from found coins. These are activated by staff of Athfield Architects wearing the pieces to distant lands and whose function is, as the website suggests, to ‘carry forward the connection with a workplace after leaving.’ Blanche Tilden’s (Melbourne, Kiama) elegant minimal pendant necklace charm The Harder I Work, the Luckier I Get includes a section of a 24-karat gold bullion ingot (from gold dust gathered from 20 years at the bench) and a grating file. Its function is to provide a moment of inspiration against the odds and is activated by reciting the words of the title and grating gold dust from the ingot. Caz Guiney’s (Melbourne) Charm-ID Card, fabricated from a plastic ID card, leather lanyard and gold 24-karat gold leaf, confronts the obstacle of bureaucracy when the host leaves traces of rubbed gold on their chosen institution.
Other moving and highly socially engaged projects are contributed by New Zealand-born Melbourne based artists Roseanne Bartley and Jacqui Chan. Bartley’s memorial amulets, One More for the Road, are created from found car fragments and function to promote road safety awareness; they are activated by charging and using the amulet with your vehicle. Chan’s Brooch from ‘Host A Brooch,' constructed from river stone, rubber and silver, is an example from her series of brooches that function to, as the website puts it, ‘produce new experiences and connections between wearers and their urban surroundings in post-earthquake Christchurch.’ Loaned to participants, these pieces are activated by documenting the wearers’ experience while walking through Christchurch’s changed environment.
There is something undeniably utopian about the Joyaviva project rationale that permeates through the artworks and the growing dialogue surrounding the project and its ethical concerns. The Joyaviva project contributes to a long history of utopias inspired by philosopher and humanist Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia that engendered an entire literary genre. In 2011, Murray delivered the paper ‘Aesthetics versus Ethics: Judgement Day for Contemporary Jewelry’ at the SNAG jewelry conference in Seattle in the ‘Nothing if not Critical’ forum. The paper was then published on the AJF website. Both this paper and the catalog for Joyaviva posit ‘ethical metalsmithing,’ as Murray terms it, as a much-needed ethical turn in the field of jewelry. Both texts directly and indirectly call for an overhaul of prevailing aesthetic values in contemporary jewelry, not only for the purpose of social and environmental change and awareness but to provide an opportunity for new aesthetic principles to emerge in place of prevailing ones. In ‘Aesthetics versus Ethics,’ Murray suggests the ‘aesthetic and the ethical seem diametric opposites. One argues for an entirely internal set of values, the other brings jewelry to account in its external effects. Maybe they both have a place in contemporary jewelry.’ He also identifies ‘agitprop,’ ‘microsocial’ and ‘poor jewelry’ as three new categories of production through which jewelry can approach political issues as well as social relations.
Both Joyaviva and ‘Aesthetics versus Ethics’ are provocations. What is also implicit within these provocations is the theme of place. The Joyaviva project shifts focus from Europe as the center for the aesthetic and conceptual development of contemporary jewelry to the Pacific axis between Australia, New Zealand and Latin America. In shifting focus, Murray offers viewers an alternative discourse through these sites of cultural production.
Very much like relational artworks from the 1990s and beyond, such as works by French visual artists Sophie Calle or Pierre Huyghe, Joyaviva relies heavily on principles of communication, activation and participation. In fact, Joyaviva explores, through the field of jewelry, many of the ideas outlined by French curator and art critic Nicolas Bourriaud in Relational Aesthetics (Les presses du réel, 2002). Similar to Murray’s concerns regarding the current technocratic context of contemporary jewelry, Bourriaud notes that these days, ‘communications are plunging into monitored areas that divide the social bond up into (quite) distinct areas’ (Bourriaud, 8) and continues to suggest that the ‘social bond has turned into artefact.’ (Bourriaud, 9) Many of Bourriaud’s essays explore the work of artists who seek alternative modes of representation, new ways to re-make relationships between people and artworks and new approaches to socials bonds. But as New York-based art historian and critic Claire Bishop and local academic Toni Ross have since acknowledged, despite high levels of social engagement, relation practices are not necessarily democratic. The field of jewelry is ideally placed, because of its inherent aspects of activation through adornment, to provide a commentary on relational concepts. To build and reveal social connections that may well be, for this moment antithetical to aesthetics of seduction.
Joyaviva the exhibition, much like the movement of artworks it promotes, requires time and patience in the exhibition experience. Initially, the viewer, embedded in the gallery space, cannot help feel somehow peripheral to these personal and intimate exchanges. In surveying some of the objects, despite the inclusion of video, photographs, notes and didactic panels, it is difficult to appreciate the complexity of these works and indeed the project itself, without at least some prior knowledge of Joyaviva’s intention and purpose.
Joyaviva capaciously embraces themes of liveness, preciousness, place, exchange and luck. Despite the intriguing nature of the artworks in layering the jewelry with images and with the more personal project collateral, the overall effect of the exhibition design is of a highly provisional community project. While a white cube space is certainly not required for the viewing of all works of art, this dense approach to looking, with its multiple layering of material and saturation of information, paradoxically inhibits the exhibition as a contemplative space. In many ways it seems that there is too much detritus to provide an active, communicative space, with a clear discernible narrative. However admirable the community spirit of the Joyaviva project and the importance of the collective voice, quite simply, there is too much matter and material crowding out the voices of individual artworks. Even the low light setting, required for the accompanying video projection and exacerbated by the dark green walls, compromises the available light for viewing individual pieces. This is an unhappy darkness when considering the sensitivity and lightness of touch of the overall Joyaviva project.
But maybe this is the point of the Joyaviva exhibition; that as viewers we must sacrifice our current desire for a singular, unifying aesthetic approach in order to allow the space for other voices to emerge. In order to depart from the aesthetic of international contemporary jewelry – as defined by the field’s powerhouse exhibitions such as Schmuck, Munich’s jewelry galleries and European aestheticism – a shock may be exactly what is required here. This may also explain the lo-fi and provisional nature of the overall exhibition design. The Joyaviva exhibition will continue to tour to UTS Gallery in Sydney and other venues. In doing so, the artworks may find some breathing space that will allow for a sustained contemplation of individual pieces and for the depth and complexity of the Joyaviva project to emerge more naturally over time.